One of the key promises of the Green Energy Act is a “one window” approval process for renewable energy projects, coupled with a six month “service guarantee”, to cut through the current dozens of approvals for a power generation project.
How will the Ministry of Environment Approvals Branch actually provide this service?
MOE approvals backlogs have been a bane of Ontario’s economy for more than two decades. Many attempts to simplify and speed the process have been proudly announced, but backlogs stubbornly remain. More ambitious plans were abandoned, such as the Transformation Agenda, which would have stopped wasting MOE approvals expertise on minor environmental risks. The MOE is still painfully slow in issuing air and sewage approvals, even after 38+ years of experience. How will they cope with adding renewable energy approvals on top of their existing load?
Renewable energy approvals will be much more demanding for the MOE than anything they do now. First, the new approvals must be measured against a much broader definition of “environment”, requiring the MOE to evaluate and balance social, economic, archaeological, aboriginal, planning, landuse and other issues, in addition to the environmental issues that are its core mandate. Second, few MOE staff have expertise or experience in these broader areas. Third, projects with renewable energy approvals will be exempt from municipal and other controls. This will focus all opposition squarely on the MOE approval process, without the current opportunity to shift some of the conflict to municipal and other levels. Fourth, the Green Energy Act is an ambitious attempt to transform Ontario’s economy. This means encouraging disruptive changes, which may meet stronger opposition than current run-of-the-mill industries. Wind projects, in particular, are already meeting passionate opposition. And fifth, proponents have been promised a six-month service guarantee, which will be closely watched by the press.
It’s worth noting that the Divisional Court in Lafarge held MOE regulatory inexperience to be a valid ground of appeal against air and waste approvals. The MOE’s novel role in landuse planning under the Clean Water Act will also be ramping up over the next few years, with its own potential for regulatory inexperience, disruption and conflict.
We have heard nothing yet from the Minister on how his staff will meet all these demands. Last week’s announcement of a multistakeholder committee of government ministries is only a small step in the right direction. One obvious risk is that renewable approvals won’t get through in a reasonable time, driving innovation and the green future to other jurisdictions. An even greater risk is that resources needed to manage renewable energy approvals will be shifted from existing approval processes, starving them into even longer, more destructive backlogs.